Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adorno and Potential Questions for Barth's Positivism

The influence of the nineteenth century thinker Soren Kierkegaard was extremely important for figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. Barth uses Kierkegaard's thought, which places a humongous gap between God and humanity, as a context for speaking about revelation coming in from on high to interrupt and judge human knowledge. Now the dynamic attitude of this is like Theodor Adorno's concept of constellation where critical thought allows sudden insights of different phenomena; Adorno was famously pessimistic about the rationalization behind much human thought. However, Adorno's has a immanent critique that would actually distrust Barth's move (see Brittain's Adorno and Theology).

Because, for Adorno, any talk of God as a wholly other betrays the divinity as an abyss. In short, Barth and other dialectical theologians escape from history and concrete analysis by keeping the traditional terms of theology intact. This even led Walter Benjamin to claim that Barth is hiding behind the language of Kierkegaard's existentialism to thus return to the "enchanted circle" of idealistic thought in the language of a positive revelation.

On the other hand, Kenneth Surin in his The Turnings of Darkness and Light (see pages 180–200) in a chapter entitled "Contempus Mundi and the disenchantment of the world: Bonhoeffer's 'Discipline of the Secret' and Adorno's 'Strategy of Hibernation'," sees Barth's move as a potential positive especially against Bonhoeffer's move to see a connection between revelation and saved creation. Barth, of course, sees a disjunction.

Surin claims Barth's theological deconstruction of human thought matches up with Adorno's historico-philosophical deconstruction. Adorno's negative dialectics keeps a diastasis between reality as it seems and what its potentiality is which fits with Barth's own diastasis with revelation versus the world. Surin notes how Adorno had criticized or would even critique Barth's somewhat naive understanding of positive revelation, yet Barth's diastasis makes Barth a thinker of suspicion in line with Adorno and actually against Bonhoeffer's somewhat ambiguous and naive correspondence theory.

Still, in light of this study and others, I am really wrestling with the "positive revelation" from transcendence that touches down here. I am mulling over critiquing this idea in some way through Delueze or some other thinker especially as it regards Barth's ethics.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Barth as an artistic follower of Mozart

Just recently finished Isolde Andrews' book Deconstructing Barth which compares Derrida's idea of the gift with Barth's economy of salvation. It was a creative way to view Barth because Andrews makes the point that modern theologies/philosophies attempt to create a nice, organized, neat system runs into problems when it tries to read Barth's works. Barth, in essence, like Derrida, leaves the inconsistencies, complexities and gaps in place in the texts in order to point out how we do not have a holistic view of things (223). In short, he creates a system of theology that is against any type of system much like Derrida does when he uses deconstruction.

The book ends on a high note when Andrews looks at the creative ability of Barth that he gets from Mozart (see pages 220-226). She writes: "Barth's general inspiration, like Mozart's music, emerges as Barth himself recognized, from the interaction of 'unconscious ideas and conscious methodology.'" This leads Andrews to say it is better to read Barth as an "artist rather than a scientist (221)." A scientist wants a final, complete word on a subject, whereas an artist creates and leaves room for further movement in life and in the life of a text. In short, Barth views things from the vantage point of an event.

I think there might be room here to see an event in line with Gilles Deleuze's understanding of it even though it is obviously close to Derrida's understanding of it (though I think Barth's event moves from above to bellow, whereas Deleuze's moves from below to wherever). Thus, Andrews suggests: "What Barth 'hears' is the trace of the event of God made man in the representation of the Gospel stories.... Barth merely, like a fine artist or his beloved Mozart, sets out in human language that which he hears the scripture saying, knowing that, like a musical work, the surprises, changes in key, rhythm, arguments must be heard then accepted or rejected as they are, regardless of whether the sound clashes at times or if it goes against conventions of musical taste (223)."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Zizek's St Paulian Act

From Adorno and Theology by Christopher Brittain: Zizek "looks to those moments where religion encourages people to act decisively for the 'truth', appreciating in particular 'Christ's famous words about how he has come to bring the sword and division, not unity and peace'. In St Paul, he sees a call to 'commit ourselves to an excessive intensity which puts us beyond "mere life'". Such an understanding serves as a model for what Zizek calls an 'event' or 'radical Act'. This is characterized by an action that breaks the cycle of ideological positions that shape an existing situation. (167)"

Barth's dream

Another interesting note about the Brunner-Barth conflict is a dream Barth had while his friend Thurneysen dreamed that Barth was trying to push Brunner over the side of I guess a cliff. Barth dreamed that he was skipping stones on the shore of a lake when suddenly Brunner tried to take the last stone from Barth. Of course Barth bested him and threw the stone. Schildmann sees a sibling rivalry in Barth's dream: Barth is the older, domineering brother (and actual eldest son) in the relationship.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Barth: Philosophy's Place is not in Apologetics!

One of the main points of contention that is evident between Barth and Brunner is over the use of philosophy. Brunner had a view toward the world in that he wanted to use philosophy in order to combat various manifestations he thought did not fit within his theology. Sometimes this might be what he called "journalistic" theology or "eristics". It is basically a combative view in the form of using philosophy as apologetics. He believed the prevailing secularism in Europe was a starting point for the church to meet "modern human beings" in their own place and on their own terms.

Barth, on the other hand, thought that theology should have its own space to operate (starting with God's revelation). In short, that one of the problems with theology is when it becomes shaped by a philosophy. Now Barth is often misunderstood at times in thus rejecting philosophy. This he does not do. Here are a few points of what he actually does:

1. There is no such thing as "natural" reason as a first stop before then approaching theology. The point of contact that natural reason is supposedly set up to lead one to the promised land in essence cannot get you anywhere.
2. One should practice the dialectical art of thinking in response to the veiling and unveiling of the event of revelation. This is a continual act because there is no synthesis in Barth's dialectic.
3. Philosophy is to be used as a challenge to theology. We cannot take a triumphalist view toward secular thinkers but should instead listen to what they have to say on their own terms. Much Christian thought, for example, bring out a straw-man Nietzsche or Derrida just to show how bankrupt their thought is in comparison to their theology. If anyone has read Barth, one will see that he learned a lot from atheist/secular thinkers (still, he was not always consistent about this) by listening to their criticisms with open ears.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Not Just Natural Theology for Barth and Brunner: A Problem at the Start

Been speed reading through John W. Hart's Karl Barth Vs. Emil Brunner: The Formation and Dissolution of a Theological Alliance, 1916-1936 the last couple of days. The thesis behind the book is that there were methodological problems between the two theologians before the major break over the doctrine of natural theology.

Now I always understood the break in its historical context (unlike many people who simply think Barth overreacted). Barth's Nein! was motivated in reaction to the German Christians utilization of natural theology in backing up the Nazis as a religious event (this is all around the early 1903s in Germany). In some sense, Brunner's essay was simply bad timing and that is why Barth pounced on it. Nevertheless, one should not think it was just this context that led Barth to utterly despise natural theology. He already came to the conclusion that it was bankrupt and in opposition toward his theology of revelation.

Hart's book shows how Barth had always suspected that Brunner did not really understand him and that they were always somewhat at odds. One example is over the handling of Schleiermacher (who I have learned to respect as a thinker on his own merits). Brunner attacks Schleiermacher in a triumphalist sort of way. Barth, on the other hand, has a weird love/hate relationship with Schleiermacher's thought, but loves the man. One of the arguments between Barth and Brunner are over Schleiermacher's sermons. Barth says you will not understand him really without diving into his sermons, but Brunner does not buy this option.

The other thing featured in the book is just how needy Brunner is and how Barth is a little bugged by it. Here is great quote by Barth: "Do I have to write a commentary to every postcard? Dear friend: take everything in humor and innocence in which it was meant. And above all: don't take me-and yourself-so bloody seriously."

Finally, I actually read "natural" theology through a more poststructuralist mode. In short, there is no such thing as "natural" for us the human viewers. Everything is seen through symbolization. When I get to this part of the book I will post on what I consider Barth's aversion to both natural theology and humanism-which I am currently trying to find links in Zizek's thought.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Religion's Appeal for the social-political

Susan Buck-Morss, a disciple of the 20th century theorist Walter Benjamin and who wrote a delightful book on the Haitian Revolution's impact on the German philosopher Hegel, composed a great essay "The Second Time as Farce...Historical Pragmatics and the Untimely Present" on the potential of religious thought on mobilizing radical reforms of government. She builds her argument off of the current trend by secular thinkers from the West like Badiou and Zizek to find the radical, egalitarian message out of the Christian message by likewise finding this same mode from Islam.

She writes that "we need to take the radical core of religion seriously, because in our time revolutiuonary power depends on its rescue and reinvention, and not on some facile assertion that 'we' have now progressed beyond religion, when the vast majority of the world's population is excluded in that statement." In essence, this is the same criticism that John Caputo leveled at Badiou and Zizek in that, for example, people filled the halls to listen to his friend the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida because of the interest he raised in religion and not in attempting to remove the "religious baggage" from thought. I firmly believe that the Bonhoeffer/Barth tandem accomplishes the same thing in mobilizing resistance (like it did in communist Eastern Germany) through their theology to anything or anyone that attempts to squash the freedom that is given to humanity by God through Christ (and not just in the spiritual realm but also the material).

Buck-Morss's essay was also helpful in putting together my lecture for modern Islam for my history class and in emphasizing those figures like Taha and Shariati who spoke of the equality of women and challenged the clericalism of their day (I actually read Shariati's Religion book, which I really enjoyed, on the plane ride on my honeymoon-while my wife slept). It also inspired me to look closer at a figure like Qutb, who some say is the main thinker behind Islamic fundamentalism (there is a bio of him I would like to jump into). I am really new to theology when it comes to Muslim thought, but as both a historian and a budding theologian, I think it is important to read both the primary sources (out of the author's mouth) and good secondary sources. In short, avoid the polemics and apologetics.

At the heart of these figures is the struggle with the world and God. Through contrasts and contacts, I hope to have my basic Barth/Bonhoeffer position challenged in a good way in order to fashion a truly democratic social-political thought that takes the religious space seriously all over the world.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Silent Sufferer

At the end of The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek gives the example of the "suffering mother" to illustrate the "beautiful soul syndrome." What does he mean by this? Basically that the mother as the "pillar of the family" silently plays the role of the passive worker, the glue that holds together the messy framework of the family unit, who sacrifices her life and happiness for the well-being of the family. This is her imaginary identification. In short, her identity comes from this sacrificial role.

Even though the suffering mother groans over her sacrifice, this same groaning is an indicator that this sacrifice and identity is what gives her life actual meaning. Take it away and she has no real purpose in life. In order to really break the bond, she must learn to sacrifice the sacrifice. Zizek writes: "The mother's fault is therefore not simply in her 'inactivity' in silently enduring the role of exploited victim, but in actively sustaining the social-symbolic network in which she is reduced to playing such a role."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Commodifying Love

Both Badiou and Zizek have pointed out that the "event" of love has fallen by the wayside in contemporary thought. The best way to see this trend is in organized, virtual dating. In essence, one commodifies oneself when one fills in what the likes, dislikes, personality type, etc. (basic identity markers) in the form and then is matched up with someone that fits this identity by a private "love-matching" agency. So now love itself has become marketable because no one want to go through the messy business of "falling" in love, with the ups and downs of building a relationship.

In the first season of How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby decides to try out this online dating. The comedy comes from the fact that he has no matches. He then is eventually matched with a doctor that is engaged with her match. Ted tries to woo her by asking her to leave him and start up a relationship with him. What is crucial here is that even in the situation of being set up with a match (this engaged doctor)Ted tries to reintroduce the eventfulness of love by asking her to fall in love with him. Ted as a character is someone who does not give up in the event of love (best example is his first date with Robin, where he professes his love to her shock). Ted is the hopeless romantic who, for example, even stages a typical romantic date for another doctor Stella to fit her busy schedule. Still, as the romantic, who sees his best friends Marshall and Lilly love relationship as his model, Ted hopes one day to eventually fall in love with a woman (eventually the mother).

Zizek notes that what this virtual dating has done is to take us backwards to a time when marriages were arranged by parents. The choice is then for those who have one's best interests in mind and who match one on the basis of class, creed and race; there can be no event here. One of the things we have fought for in modern society is the ability and with it the responsibility to be a person in love and to act on it. The event is only for those two persons in love and its meaning will only be important to the couple as they remain faithful to this event. Again, good romantic movies play on the attraction of opposites that no computer could ever fathom of putting together.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Disability & Performance

The next turn in my studies is to look at Karl Barth and power relations especially in the social-political sense. Two of the main contemporary thinkers looking at this topic today is Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler and I am considering putting him in dialogue with them.

What we define as normal or human is something that often gets taken for granted. However, it is the philosopher's (and I would argue the theologian's) place to continue to probe this question. Butler points out how important performance is when considering human action. Many theologians like to talk about our being made in God's image, yet how does that look with regard to performance? In the actual everyday practices, the glances, ticks and movements of every-day human beings. I would argue that one of the absolute tragedies of the traditions of the Church is how often uncompromisingly they reflected the essentialist tendencies of the culture. Essentialist thought that basically says men, women, dogs, plants, etc. work in this way, all of the time.

Looking at performance from a Christological standpoint, one can see how the incarnation of Christ illustrates the idea of performance in a way that no one foreseen (Kierkegaard saw this the best). A "king" or God-incarnate, born in a stable, walked among the sick and lame and was murdered as a criminal. Perhaps if our understanding of what is human started with this model, then perhaps theology would have a more adaptable place in understanding all manifestations of life, whether it is human or inhuman.

See discussion with Taylor and Butler below: